"As We May Think" is a essay by Vannevar Bush which has been described as visionary and influential, anticipating many aspects of information society.
Table of contents
- Table of Contents
- See a Problem?
- An Amazingly Timely Essay on Info Overload, Open-Access Science, and Human Filters—From 1945
- As we may think – the morning paper
The Dickensian Memex; or, the 19th-century roots of hypertext Steven Johnson T he hypertext link is the first significant new form of punctuation to emerge in centuries, but it is only a hint of things to come.
Table of Contents
Hypertext suggests a whole new grammar of possibilities, a new way of writing and telling stories. But to make that new frontier accessible, we need more than one type of link. Microsoft and Netscape may be content with the simple, one-dimensional links of the Web's current incarnation, but for the rest of us, it's like trying to write a novel where the words are separated only by semicolons.
Fortunately, the world of hypertext has a long history of low- level innovation. As a general interface convention, the link should usually be understood as a synthetic device, a tool that brings multifarious elements together into an orderly unit.
See a Problem?
In this respect, the most compelling cultural analogy for hypertext turns out to be not the splintered universe of channel surfing, but rather the damp, fog-shrouded streets of Victorian London , and the mysterious resemblances of Charles Dickens. The link usually takes the form of a passing resemblance, half-glimpsed and then forgotten. Throughout his oeuvre, characters perceive some stray likeness in the faces of strangers, something felt but impossible to place. These moments are scattered through the novels like hauntings; this ethereal quality brings them close to the subjective haze of modernism and the stream of consciousness.
Consider Pip's ruminations on his mysterious playmate and love-interest Estella: "What was it that was borne in upon my mind when she stood still and looked attentively at me? What was it? As my eyes followed her white hand, again the same dim suggestion that I could not possibly grasp, crossed me.
My involuntary start occasioned her to lay her hand upon my arm. Instantly the ghost passed once more and was gone. Resolving the half-resemblance, connecting the links, putting a name to the face--these actions invariably give the novel the sense of an ending.
They restore a certain orderliness in the face of tremendous disorder mirroring in one way the "synthetic" connections of hypertext prose. The associative links unite Dickens' two major thematic obsessions: orphans and inheritances. In the Dickensian novel, the plight of being orphaned at an early age has the same sine qua non quality that marital infidelity had in the French novel: You simply can't imagine the form surviving without it. The more complicated later novels Bleak House , Our Mutual Friend , Great Expectations are teeming with abandoned children, surrogate parents, anonymous benefactors.
The Victorians have a reputation for family-values conservatism, but their most gifted novelist dissected and recombined the family unit with an inventiveness that would have impressed the Marquis de Sade. For all the experimentation, of course, Dickens's novels eventually wind their way back to some kind of nuclear family. And with this "rightful" restoring of the family unit comes another restoration, this one financial.
Like most 19th-century British novelists, Dickens incessantly structured his narratives around troubled inheritances. There are enough contested wills, anonymous benefactors, and entangled estates to keep all the lawyers in Chancery busy for another century. Reuniting the dispersed family and discovering links of filiation are bound up in the rightful disposition of some long-contested estate.
What better way to tantalize the reader--haplessly trying to connect those long-separated family lines--than by offering up a suggestive but unfulfilled resemblance, a hint of filiation?
An Amazingly Timely Essay on Info Overload, Open-Access Science, and Human Filters—From 1945
What makes these links striking--to the 20th-century reader, at least--is that they straddle radically different social groups the family at the end of Great Expectations include an escaped convict, a servant, and a young woman of means; in Bleak House , an aristocratic baroness, an opium-addict law stenographer, and an orphan girl brought up by a haute bourgeois uncle.
There is a strong vein of sentimentality in these reconciliations, of course, but also something heroic. Dickens attempted to see a social whole, building a form large enough to connect the lives of street urchins, captains of industry, schoolteachers, circus folk, ladies in waiting, convicts, shut-ins, dustheap emperors, aging nobility, and rising young gentlemen. No novelist since has cast such a wide net, or even dared to try. That is partially because the forces unleashed by the industrial revolution had an enormously dissociative power. Dickens inherited the burden of a society in which roles were no longer clearly defined, where the codes of primogeniture and noblesse oblige had given way to a bewildering new regime.
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He built explanatory narratives within the genre of the novel, but the divisions were too severe for ordinary storytelling to broach. To see the relationship between a street orphan and a baroness, you needed a little magic. Dickens understood that a culture so divided against itself could only seek resolution in fairy tales. The "links of association" were the building blocks of that fantasy. Their high-tech descendants serve an equivalent purpose today.
Where Dickens's narrative links stitched together a torn social fabric, hypertext links attempt the same with information. Today's imaginative crisis comes from having too much information at our fingertips. The modern interface is a kind of corrective to this multiplying energy, an attempt to subdue all that teeming complexity.
On the Web, it is the link that finally supplies that sense of coherence. Today's orphans and itinerants are the isolated packets of data strewn across the infosphere.
The question is whether it will take another Dickens to bring them all back home again. Like so much of the digital world, linking originates in the creative aftermath of World War II as a response to the research explosion of the war years. With so much new data, how would scientists make sense of it all? Vannevar Bush , in his essay "As We May Think," 1 conceived the problem as one of discontinuity: Our knowledge-creating tools had advanced faster than the knowledge-processing ones.
Plenty of information was being generated; we just didn't know where to find it. Fifty years before Netscape Navigator, Bush drew on a nautical metaphor, hinting at the provocative idea of information space: "The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships.
He allocated funds and managed priorities for many of the major US funded research projects of the Second World War. At the end of the war when he wrote the essay he knew many secrets. When Bush wrote his essay the great electronic computers that had been developed to aid the war effort were still secret. The following quote from the essay is stated as a prediction but is actually a fairly accurate description of the ENIAC.
Moreover, they [computers] will be far more versatile than present commercial machines [punch card tabulators and hand calculators], so that they may readily be adapted for a wide variety of operations. They will be controlled by a control card or film, they will select their own data and manipulate it in accordance with the instructions thus inserted, they will perform complex arithmetical computations at exceedingly high speeds, and they will record results in such form as to be readily available for distribution or for later further manipulation.
Such machines will have enormous appetites. One of them will take instructions and data from a whole roomful of girls armed with simple key board punches, and will deliver sheets of computed results every few minutes. There will always be plenty of things to compute in the detailed affairs of millions of people doing complicated things. The first atomic bomb was detonated at the Trinity site in New Mexico on July 16, Bush is said to have had a nervous collapse after witnessing the test detonation.
The following paragraph describing the impact of the war on scientific research, especially physics, seems to refer to the massive Manhattan Project and all the physicists involved. It is the physicists who have been thrown most violently off stride, who have left academic pursuits for the making of strange destructive gadgets, who have had to devise new methods for their unanticipated assignments.
They have done their part on the devices that made it possible to turn back the enemy, have worked in combined effort with the physicists of our allies.
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They have felt within themselves the stir of achievement. They have been part of a great team. Now, as peace approaches, one asks where they will find objectives worthy of their best.
As we may think – the morning paper
Bush starts his visionary predictions by suggesting that computers could be made to manipulate premises in than same way they manipulate numbers. It is readily possible to construct a machine which will manipulate premises in accordance with formal logic, simply by the clever use of relay circuits.
Put a set of premises into such a device and turn the crank, and it will readily pass out conclusion after conclusion, all in accordance with logical law, and with no more slips than would be expected of a keyboard adding machine. He then describes the Memex as a personal desktop interactive device. However it is here that his foresight breaks down because the Memex it described as analog not digital. While it contained some computing components information was stored photographically on microfilm and retrieved electro-mechanically.
Alan Turing had understood that computers were manipulators of symbols and that those symbols could represent any concept. But this knowledge was tightly bound to his work on code breaking and he in turn was bound by secrecy not to discuss it. The Relay gave way to the Thermionic Value which in turn gave way to the Transistor which itself was replaced by the Silicon Chip.
Each paradigm shift maintained the exponential rate of growth in computing power. Bush could not have predicted this chain of technological advances. But as Moore has shown the exponential growth it has produced is predictable.
In the ENIAC could not even store its own meager program in what little memory it had and all data was stored externally. The idea of storing vast quantities of data digitally was not considered realistic, it was accepted that there had to be some form of external physical storage. Bush merely replaced the punched card with a microfilm.
Today a standard home computer is typically shipped with over a Gigabytes of storage and several hundred Megabytes of memory. The Memex is eerily similar to a networked PC running a web browser. Even Bushes description of the wearable camera is remarkably close.
Reading this essay with hind sight, and knowing that large amounts of information were still secret in July , one is forced to wonder who was the intended audience of the essay. In effect Bush was suggesting a path for post war research and development based on his uniquely broad knowledge of the state of technology.